Born and trained in France, Paul Pairet runs three restaurants of different natures in Shanghai: Popular modern eatery “Mr & Mrs Bund”, French café “Polux”, avant-garde and experimental “Ultraviolet". Identify as one of the leading chefs in avant-garde cuisine, Paul Pairet agree to become the Honorary President of the next Bocuse d’Or Asia-Pacific (July 1st and 2nd, Guangzhou – China).
How do you approach your role as the President of honour of the Bocuse d’Or Asia-Pacific? What do you expect this experience will bring you?
Well the honour is shared indeed. I feel most honoured and gratified. I’m not expecting anything in particular, there are no economic or commercial stakes really. I think the idea will be to share some good times among colleagues, the level will rise progressively, feeding the event to see it grow even more, it’s as simple as that. I think what is expected of me is to meet people, enjoy food, that’s how I see it.
Asia has brought you much, feeding your inspiration, your work, and vice-versa of course. How would you define this unique partnership?
I had a first expat experience in 1992. Having travelled so much piqued my curiosity, which is an essential trait for a chef. You realize that there is not just France, there are so many things to taste, to see all over the world. My first real Chinese meal was like a slap in the face for me, I realised that I had never eaten a Chinese meal before that experience. Asia was not a destination I had considered initially, but then I prioritised freedom in my cooking, and that led me to Shanghai. I was free to cook what I love …
Technique, creativity, technology, there are many aspects in your cuisine. Do you view these as separate concepts and are you more comfortable with one or the other?
Technical mastery and creativity are inseparable, you need skills to stimulate your creativity and you need the latter to move beyond the technique. I’m referring to the Ultraviolet essentially, where you have to force yourself to fail, launch into things that you don’t master to be sure to discover something. We always doubt, this is nothing new, but you need to test, compete with yourself, keep in shape and be inspired… It’s not the lack of ideas that poses the real challenge, but more the lack of time available to take care of the composition, the most interesting aspect in cooking, the main reason I joined this trade. I still feel like I don’t know much, the job is so much greater than the chefs, and can easily fill a lifetime, there’s no end. Discovering new things, that’s the most important aspect for me.
You have rapidly been identified as one of the leading chefs in avant-garde cuisine. Is it important for you to move the goal posts? Is France a bit too constrained by its traditions and techniques?
Change the goal posts, no not necessarily and I don’t think France is too focused on the traditional approach. Sometimes, I even wish it was more focused! I love tradition, if only as an exercise in style. Rekindle the love of a job well done without considering other styles as minor. I’m not referring to sophisticated French cuisine only, this applies also to home cooking, snack bars...
Shifting the lines can be necessary though if you want to introduce creation and novelty, not necessarily to transcend cuisine, but bring a new texture or unique technique… It’s not an obligation, we all have our own style, you simply need to be honest.
After Mr. & Mrs. Bund and Ultraviolet, Polux is your latest restaurant in Shanghai. This is a clear return to French brasserie-style cuisine. Were you feeling a bit homesick and looking to instil some of your origins with this establishment?
Indeed, Mr. & Mrs. Bund was already the backbone, Polux is like an exercise in style, the archetype of a French café. I find it finally easier to propose French cuisine in another country. The distance makes you want to find the things you miss. I have noted that chefs who work abroad are often those that best express the identity of their country.
For instance, with Polux, we propose lettuce with croutons. It all depends on how you select your lettuce, how crunchy it is, how long it has been kept in cold water… I then add vinaigrette inspired by my grand-mother in Catalonia: a dose of sherry vinegar (in place of Banyuls vinegar) for a dose of oil, working it up to one and a half… Add pepper, garlic, it’s quite seasoned, peppery and has a great kick! Still, basically it’s a lettuce, typical home lettuce, traditional, but with a specific approach. This might sound biased but that’s how I like it and know it.
A new generation of chefs is emerging, curious, flourishing and maybe more eco-responsible… What is your take on this?
What I find interesting in the new generation in the broader sense – not only French – is that it evolves to the beat of today’s global communication. The exceptional means available now did not exist in my days! We had books, you had to go out and buy them, that is, when you could afford to! Today, Instagram, the internet and such are incredible tools that enable young chefs to learn what’s going on in the world instantly. A young cook in a village in France can see what’s happening on the Japanese cooking scene in no time at all…
One thing that remains unchanged however is that a chef is still an artisan. There are no shortcuts to learn the core techniques, the knowledge. Mass communication can be a good tool but also a pitfall. There is an information overload, you don’t know which direction to take or which identity, what trend you should follow without copying, without forcing imitation and a lot of things do look alike … The difficulty lies in standing out from the crowd, becoming yourself, sorting, finding one’s identity and mastering what makes our trade an artisan trade. However, observing all this is fascinating and nourishes our curiosity.